The 1964 Tour de France, Part I

The best Tour de France ever? Some say 1989, take your pick. During the 1989 Tour many knew it was an exceptional edition and many held up 1964 as a reference point or even the vintage edition. With this in mind here’s a mini-series to take a look the 1964 Tour. Part I below looks at the year in general, the cycling season, the race’s route and format.

Lyndon Johnson was US President, Charles de Gaulle French President. Nikita Khrushchev was deposed as Soviet leader. Brazil turned into a dictatorship. Tokyo hosted the Olympics. Cassius Clay knocked out Sonny Liston. The James Bond film “Goldfinger” is released. The Beatles topped the charts. France was in the middle of a long period of strong economic growth and embracing consumer brands, television and the car and the Tour de France reflected this.

1964 in cycling
Jacques Anquetil wins Paris-Nice. Tom Simpson wins Milan-Sanremo ahead of Raymond Poulidor. Anquetil wins Gent-Wevelgem, taking the bunch sprint. Poulidor wins the Vuelta a España in the spring, it’s a two week race and he wins a time trial in Valladolid just before the final weekend to take the lead and keeps it to Madrid. Anquetil wins the Giro d’Italia for the second time, this was a three week race and he takes the race lead after the Stage 5 time trial in Parma and keeps it to the end in Milan. Miguel Indurain was born.

The Route
22 June to 14 July with 25 stages across 22 days of racing as on three days there are two stages with a road race in the morning and a time trial in the afternoon. There’s one rest day in Andorra and it’s 4,504km in total, about 1,000km more than current editions. A start in Brittany and a dash across northern France and then into Belgium before a long run down France’s eastern frontier, the kind of route to satisfy Tour founder Henri Desgranges’s nationalistic streak as it asserts the eastern border and even goes into Germany; and it’d please today’s director Christian Prudhomme too, as it never strays far from the mountains with the Ardennes, Vosges and Jura ranges before the Alps, Pyrenees and the Puy-de-Dôme. There’s one team time trial of 21km, and three individual time trials totalling 91km.

Looking closer at the route, there’s no summit finish apart from the Puy-de-Dôme, these didn’t become regular – Alpe d’Huez was first in 1952 – until later as ski stations expanded and mass tourism grew. There are transfers too with the use of separate start and finish towns and coaches laid on to transport the riders, not a novelty for 1964 but still a talking point. It’s still a high altitude Tour with Stage 8’s 249km going via the Galibier, the 2,556m altitude mentioned on the map above indicates the riders would use the tunnel near the top of the pass to spare them the full ascent. The next day sees Stage 9 and the Restefond, aka La Bonnette at 2,802m. Stage 13 crosses to Andorra via the Port d’Envalira at 2,407m while Stages 14, 15 and 16 are gruelling days in the Pyrenees with hard climbs but also long distances across the plains just to get to them.

The race isn’t finished in the Pyrenees. Stage 20 sees the race go to the Puy-de-Dôme, an extinct volcano in central France with a steep roads that spirals up the cone. It’s not new, it’s been used in 1952 and 1959 when no less than Fausto Coppi and Federico Bahamontes won.

Stage 21 is a sadistic transition of 311km from Clermont-Ferrand to Orléans before the final day in Paris where there’s a 119km in the morning to Versailles and then an afternoon time trial from Versailles to Paris of 27km to settle the race for good.

The Format
There are time bonuses of one minute for the stage winner, 30 seconds for second place. Split stages, ie one in the morning and one in the afternoon, have 40 seconds and 20 seconds. Time trials have time bonuses too, 20 seconds and 10 seconds.

As well as the stage wins and overall classification, there’s a points competition, a mountains competition and a team prize.

There were 132 starters with 12 teams of 11 riders. The peloton was 38 Belgians, 35 Frenchmen, 25 Spaniards, 14 Dutch, 12 Italians, four Britons, three Germans and one Irishman in Seamus “Shay” Elliott. All the teams are sponsored by various consumer brands, a format in place since 1962.

The race was run by sports newspaper L’Equipe with financial backing from Émilion Amaury, the owner of le Parisien Libéré, a newspaper. One year later in 1965 Amaury would buy L’Equipe bringing ownership of the race in-house and the format we know today.

The Bikes
Steel frames, leather saddles and five-speed gears at the back. Gearing was a big matter with riders and mechanics carefully selecting chainrings and sprockets for each day’s course as there was not much range. 54×13 was probably the biggest gear possible and reserved for a few strongmen in the time trials but a 52 was widespread. 42×25 was as low as it got for the mountains but many had a 44 because that was the smallest ring possible for a Campagnolo Record. With a five speed freewheel they’d chose between, say, 13-15-17-19-21 or even 14-16-18-20-23. This explains the low cadence and rocking shoulders.

Watching the race
Millions watch from the roadside. TV ownership is growing in France. It is televised by French state broadcaster ORTF which also shares with Eurovision so that viewers in nearby countries can watch too. Typically the final 15km are shown live thanks a camera on a moto able to broadcast its output via radio link to helicopter above the race which also has a camera and then beams on the signal to the production truck at the finish. More footage is captured on film by two motos with cameras containing film reel and at the finish, inside a special development-laboratory truck, the film is processed, edited and turned into highlights for newsreels that evening with the final cut being beamed to the nearest broadcast tower, either direct from the stage finish’s production truck but sometimes requiring transport in motorbike or helicopter. Every evening at 8.30pm the highlights are beamed out in France with a voice commentary and a jazz soundtrack.

Plenty listen to the race via the radio with several stations competing to broadcast from the race. Newspapers play a big part, especially since L’Equipe and Le Parisien are involved in the race. The telegram was also an important results service, a message delivered to a village café containing the stage placings is stuck on the wall or in the window so patrons can see the results before the newspaper arrives.

Pre-race picks
30 year old Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor start the Tour de France as joint favourites. Poulidor is portrayed as the rising talent but he’s 28 years old and needing to deliver, he’d been tipped for the top in 1963 only to finish eighth overall and disappoint. Anquetil won in 1963 and returns looking for his fifth Tour title and to equal Coppi as the only rider to achieve the Giro-Tour double in a season, he is thinking increasingly of his palmarès and for ways to endear himself to the French public. 36 year old Federico Bahamontes, the “Eagle of Toledo”, is the third pick after he’d finished second the previous year and has been a consistent force, winning the 1959 edition and being the best climber in five of the past ten editions of the race.

1964 Tour de France – Part I to set the scene
1964 Tour de France – Part II a stage-by-stage account of the race
1964 Tour de France – Part III a review of what made it so good

38 thoughts on “The 1964 Tour de France, Part I”

  1. “Anquetil won in 1963 and returns looking for his fifth Tour title which will equal Fausto Coppi’s record ”

    Coppi hadn’t won 5 TDFs, had he? You must mean something else?

        • It’s been studied, the road is there but narrower because of the railway they’ve built alongside which today carries tourists to the top. It could still cope with a time trial but it would be a difficult logistical challenge, both how to manage the fans and space for the riders; and for the race to get back down again. You could still have a great stage just to get to the foot of the Puy, there are a lot of hilly roads to make a tough mid-mountain stage.

    • I think this is instructive about the type of rider that used to succeed on GC versus those that succeed now, although there are countless other variables that have changed too. Strong time triallers and those with good longevity are surely the common theme of top riders.

  2. Whilst Fleming’s ‘Goldfinger’ played to packed cinemas, his novel ‘You Only Live Twice’ was released in March 1964.
    Tiger Tanaka’s poem to James Bond contained the words, very prescient for today –
    “You only live twice.
    Once when you are born.
    And once when you look death in the face”.

    • You’re born alone and you die alone and the rest of the time you’re on your own-
      Bernie Gunther, who is a better spy than Bond

    • It was announced today that Honor Blackmun, who played the Bond girl, Pussy Galore, in Goldfinger has passed away at the age of 94. RIP Ms. Blackmun.

    • Since I don’t mind being a nitpicker, I would like to point out that what took place after July isn’t at all relevant here.
      The James Bond film that everyone had seen and spoke about was not “Goldfinger” but “Bons Baisers de Russie”, i.e. “From Russia with Love”. The biggest French box office this far into the year 1964 had been “L’Homme de Rio”, “That Man from Rio”, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Françoise Dorléac. (In my opinion it is the better or more delightful film of the two, well worth watching today.)
      However, the film that puts me – in my imagination – right back into France of (first half of) 1964 is “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” with Catherine Deneuve!

      • Agreed-‘Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is the consummate ’60s mood-maker, and has the best music by Michel Legrand (Ne me quittez pas and Recit de Cassard) even if the esoterically beautiful Deneuve didn’t sing any of the songs (credit goes to Danielle Licari).
        As for “From Russia with Love,” it is was released in ’63 (Goldfinger in ’64) and is a classic Bond film with iconic scenes, like the pointy shoe blade covered in poison (which apparently is a real thing) and Robert Shaw as a blond haired Soviet assassin trying to fake it as an Englishman but failing miserably when he continuously calls 007 “Old Man” and orders a chianti with his fish–both no-no’s in Bond’s Book of British Etiquette, apparently.

        • I’m lucky enough to own an almost complete set of the “Pan” paperback series of Fleming’s James Bond novels, which I started collecting from charity shops back in the 1980s and which could be bought for 15 pence and the like at that time.
          Many of the books were written in the 1950s and bear little or even no resemblance to the later films of the 1960s.
          All three of the above books are portrayed accurately in the films. It’s interesting to note that what became the trademark movie grand battles in hollow volcanoes etc appeared in the later books , ‘You Only Live’ was the first if I recall correctly, as Fleming’s works embraced the Space Race
          I have a 1963 edition of the book ‘From Russia With Love’ and the cover is a mock film reel with Sean Connery pictured. It’s clear that by this point, the cinematic version of his character was the driver for its success. The novel ‘Goldfinger’ enjoyed no less than 7 printings in 1964 for instance. Mine is actually a 1972 edition.

  3. A note perfect scene set. I particularly like the social history which gives it context. I was almost 15 at this time and the only way to follow it was the weekly report in Cycling and the classified results at the bottom of the sports pages of my Dads newspaper.Looking forward to part two.

  4. Thanks for this!!! While I was fortunate enough to follow a lot of the 1989 Tour, I’ve never read much about 1964 though I think I rode up (at least part-way) the Puy-de-dome, perhaps in 1988 the first time I followed La Grand Boucle?
    I’m a bit younger than Keith and at the tender age of 11 can only remember looking at a Schwinn bicycle catalog and seeing a Paramount for $325 when the Sting-Ray model sold for $49 and cheap knock-offs could be had for 1/2 of that. I can still remember my father muttering about who-in-the-hell would pay $325…for a bicycle? I think he was driving at the time a 1949 Chevrolet he bought used for $50.

  5. I have warm memories of this Tour…. not so much from following it live (not so easy in 1964), but from the pages of Sporting Cyclist magazine…. I was but a youngster, just getting interested in cycling, and someone gave me a pile of SC magazines that they were planning to throw out… the one with a photographic record of the battle on the Puy de Dome really captured my imagination, and was the issue that I went back to time after time….. and my forays on the bike consisted of me re-living that battle (I was always Jiminez, of course….)

  6. I’d love to see today’s pros tackle that course on those bikes… not sure Froomey would fancy the climbs with those gear ratios

    and those time bonuses! .. would Sagan still lose multiple times that on the mountain stages – I guess he would…

  7. Larry you must be in heaven. Steel bikes, center pull brakes, Brooks pro saddles on wool shorts with real chamois, and bar end shifters…
    A virtual time machine into the past.

    • Yep. How could they even race without radio earpieces, electronic gizmos of all kinds, chemically-engineered “energy” products, synthetic clothing, carbon anything, styrofoam crash-hats, huge sunglasses, etc? As they say, “Men were men and shorts were wool.”
      As our friend Giancarlo Brocci says: It was “…when cyclists were good-looking sex symbols, not to be pitied, like anorexic models or patients suffering from a chronic illness, queuing up for a drip.” It’s very hard now to tell one rider from another or to see the effort they’re making on their faces compared to the golden age, no matter what era you consider that to be. Those crash-hats and glasses were still pretty rare even in 1989, that other “Tour of tours.”
      A correction to my other post: I would have been just 9 years old in 1964 with no idea that bicycles were anything more than toys.

        • Blog comments aren’t what they used to be in my day. Back then commenters were commenters, who made do with message boards and the like…

        • I think most choose their “golden age” for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it was whenever they first became a fan of the sport or the era when their favorite champion raced? But no matter what era that was (or is) cycling historians have the benefit of perspective few of us can claim and the measure of pro cycling’s popularity is just that – a measure rather than an opinion.
          I suppose long after I’m gone folks might look back at the current age of electronic gizmos and such as a “golden age”?

          • Was just teasing really. But cycling does seem to have its fair share of fans who, judging by their comments on tinternet, used to love cycling “back in the day”, and now appear to hate everything about the cycling of today.

  8. Thanks. Great article. Met Bahamontes earlier this year and what a character! He is still doing pretty good at 91 and telling good stories of his 1959 Tour (50 years ago!!) Tough riders

  9. I lapped up every word of this, wonderful detail.

    I fully appreciate the resource required but to perhaps pick a Tour from each decade and present it in a similar style would be brilliant. I would pay for that.

  10. Outstanding, really looking forward to this. My only editorial suggestion (and it is a very gentle suggestion) would be to pick a tense and be consistent with it, as this one flips between past and present. Past is normally the safe choice.

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